Cultural Evolution in Anthropology

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  • 0:01 Definition & History
  • 1:03 Cultural Progression
  • 2:16 Edward Tylor
  • 4:50 Lewis Henry Morgan
  • 6:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the history of cultural evolution within anthropology. In doing so, it will highlight the works of Tylor and Morgan as well as the concepts of diffusion and survivals.

Definition and History

When hearing the word 'evolution,' most people tend to think of the theory of humans physically evolving over millions of years. However, among cultural anthropologists, the word 'evolution' does not center on these theories. Instead, it deals with how the cultures of different societies have developed and changed over time. This idea of cultural development and progression will be at the center of today's lesson on cultural evolution.

To begin, it's important to note that most of the theories of today's lesson have been largely dismissed by modern anthropologists. Yes, some might say they contain small vestiges of truth, but as a whole, they've been categorized as archaic, if not blatantly racist. With this in mind, when discussing the theories of early cultural evolution, some of the terminology we use - words like 'savage,' 'barbarian,' and 'primitive' - will be their words, not ours. We'll simply use them to understand the history of anthropological thought. Keeping this in mind, let's get started.

Cultural Progression

In the early days of anthropology it was believed that all cultures developed and progressed in the same pattern. In other words, whether in Africa, Asia, or the Americas, all cultures pass through the same series of stages on the march toward progression. Rather ethnocentrically, they felt these stages began with savagery and eventually ended up at modernization.

To simplify this, we can liken it to candies on a conveyor belt. The yummy concoctions start at as sugary syrup. Then, the conveyor belt moves them to a station where flavor is added. Next, it moves them to place where they are molded, perhaps next to a place where they are cooled. Finally, they will move to a place where they are wrapped and boxed and sent on their way, having moved through the exact same stages of the candies that have gone before them and will come after them.

In the same way, early cultural evolutionists felt that societies were all also on a conveyor belt of sorts, from savage to modern. Unfortunately, their use of words like 'savage' and 'barbarian' usually served to add to the cultural superiority that was already all too prevalent among the modernized West.

Edward Tylor

One of the main contributors to the field of early cultural evolution was Edward Tylor. Living from 1832 to 1917, Tylor asserted that cultures move through three specific stages of progression: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Just like candies on a conveyor belt, all societies are moving along toward the common goal of becoming civilized. However, some are simply further up the line than others.

Taking his theories a step further, Tylor asserted that some societies progress faster than others due to their ability to improve upon what he termed survivals, or traces of older cultures that survive in present societies although they are no longer necessary. To explain this further, leading anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember use the example of pottery. As they explain it, our modern use of pottery is an example of what Tylor coined a survival.

To try to put it in simple terms, ancient civilizations made pottery out of clay. However, as time progressed, metal became the material of choice for our cookware because it's more durable. Very few of us have clay pots and pans in our cabinets. However, when it comes to our serving dishes, most of us choose clay. Yes, we have adapted to make cooking easier, but when it comes to actually serving our food, we usually choose softer clay plates over the hard feel of metal.

In looking at this, perhaps Tylor would assert that those he called savage resemble the ancient past because they simply haven't figured out how to improve the things he would deem survivals. In other words, they just haven't gone very far on the conveyor belt. Adding to this theory, Tylor asserted that cultures still stuck in savagery or barbarism will move along as they come in contact with more modernized societies. To an anthropologist this is known as diffusion, the act of one culture taking on the traits of another by means of contact between the two.

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